Japan's top court on Tuesday said same-sex partners are eligible for crime victims' benefits as surviving family members, the first such ruling in the country that does not recognize same-sex marriage.

The Supreme Court's Third Petty Bench scrapped the Nagoya High Court ruling and sent back the case to the high court, which did not recognize the eligibility of Yasuhide Uchiyama, 49, whose same-sex partner of decades was murdered.

The victims' benefit law stipulates that those eligible for payments include those in common-law marriages. Whether a same-sex partnership could be considered a common-law marriage was a major point of contention in the trial.

Yasuhide Uchiyama (3rd from left) holds a banner in front of the Supreme Court in Tokyo on March 26, 2024. (Kyodo)

The court said the law was meant to cushion the mental and financial blow for the bereaved family, and that "whether the victim's live-in partner is the opposite or same sex does not make an immediate difference in facilitating that reduction."

It said the Nagoya High Court's rejection based solely on the same-sex relationship was "clearly" not in line with the law.

The decision was backed by four of the five members of the bench.

The lone dissenting judge Yukihiko Imasaki said there was not sufficient discussion regarding the legal protection for same-sex partnerships, adding that the decision was made too quickly and that "same-sex partnerships should not be correlated with common-law marriages."

The Nagoya High Court will now consider whether Uchiyama and his late partner were in a relationship equivalent to a common-law marriage.

The Nagoya District Court in 2020 denied Uchiyama's request, saying it was still not socially accepted that cohabitation between same-sex partners was comparable to marriage.

The Nagoya High Court also ruled that the law only applied to heterosexual relationships.

According to the high court ruling, Uchiyama's partner was murdered in December 2014. The killer, a colleague of Uchiyama's, was later sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Uchiyama filed for victims' benefit in December 2016, but it was rejected on the basis that the relationship was same-sex.

The ruling by the top court comes after the Sapporo High Court earlier this month said the lack of legal recognition of same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

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